The Left

More on Nick Cohen’s “What’s Left?”

There has been some good discussion of the main themes in Nick Cohen’s excellent new book, What’s Left (which, as I’ve said before, you really ought to buy now, here or here).

One of the themes of the book is the perennial crapness of the establishment, or ‘middle class’ left. Paul Anderson puts the point well:

As others have pointed out, he’s got a terminology problem that runs through the book. I don’t think “liberal-left” works as “a cover-all term for every shade of left opinion”, nor is “liberals” synonymous for me with “the middle-class left”. Unlike him, I opposed the war against Saddam in 2003 on the grounds that it was likely to be protracted and bloody and that the US had no credible plans for what happened afterwards. I don’t think Cohen recognises how many people who were against the war in 2003 also found the pro-Saddam posturing of George Galloway and the Socialist Workers Party utterly disgusting and distrusted the alliance with reactionary Islamists that Galloway and the SWP created in the Stop the War Coalition.

Still, Cohen’s central thesis is absolutely to the point. Most opponents of the war who did not share the “revolutionary defeatism” of Galloway and the SWP or the reactionary politics of their Islamist allies turned a blind eye to them. They certainly did nothing to distance themselves publicly – let alone anything to seize leadership of the anti-war movement.

And since 2003 the obsession of most people on the non-Leninist left who opposed the war – I know there are honourable exceptions – has simply been to get their own back on George Bush and Tony Blair for starting it. For the parochial self-righteous left, the important thing about the growing sectarian strife in Iraq is not that it threatens to turn into a full-scale civil war that then engulfs the whole Middle East. It is that it shows Bush and Blair were wrong three years ago — just as we said they were. Pinning the blame on Bush and Blair and demonstrating we were right matters more than working out how best to support the Iraqi people against the murderous militias terrorising their country. It’s comfortable collective political narcissism, no more.

A similar point is made by Martin Kettle:

If leftwing Britons of 2007 saw themselves more clearly than they do, they would notice two big things. First, they would see what the leftwing Britons of 1907 would have grasped – that much of what the left of a century ago yearned for has actually been achieved, imperfectly and incompletely to be sure, but unmistakably achieved all the same. As Cohen points out, the 20th century may have been largely governed by the party of the right, but it is the worldview of the party of the left that triumphed.

Second, they would have to acknowledge the paradox that, while its agenda has triumphed, the left itself has in most respects wholly collapsed. It is one of the weaknesses of Cohen’s book that he never quite pins down what “the left” is. Discussions of the book risk reproducing the fault. But it is facile to deny that the problem exists. Neither socialism as a programme nor the parties that espoused it – and these are surely somewhere near the heart of any definition of the left – have survived into the modern age with credibility. Foul though they and their ideas are, the parties of the extreme right actually have more purchase on the politics of the early 21st century than the parties of the left.

That doesn’t mean there is no one left on the left. Self-evidently there are lots of people, even if they are neither as numerous nor as influential as the rightwing press imagines. But they lack anything remotely resembling a programme, let alone a programme that all of them agree on. With nothing to say to the rest of the world, the left tradition has taken cover in single issue campaigns, in inertia, or in the gesture politics of so-called defiance. Socialism is dead. There remain only socialists.

Cohen is merciless about a left generation that has unmoored itself from political action. He chides those who have grown up believing that it is possible simply to “be” leftwing – as both he and I were brought up to be – without having to do anything practical about it. Part of this is well aimed. Yes, the left has increasingly retreated from the street to the sofa. Watching The Trial of Tony Blair qualifies in some quarters as proof of political commitment. The left has always been far too comfortable in the purity of its own ethos, a comfort which absolves it from the inconvenience of having to take responsibility for anything, and gives it the self-sustaining gratification of permanent betrayal. But he is also very unfair. Most people who think of themselves as leftwing are not hypocrites. They want to live an ethical life. The trouble is they are waiting for a call that shows little sign of ever coming.

In a response to a good review in the Economist, which argues that Nick Cohen doesn’t “explain why betrayal is so endemic “, Nick sets the record straight:

1. The reviewer quotes the first himself or herself (this is the Economist so I don’t know) earlier in the review. Socialism is dead and this has freed the far left to abandon its old taboos and form alliances with or make excuses for the ultra-Right. The Economist could be forgiven for not knowing it, but in moments of crisis many otherwise sane liberal people can embrace the far Left’s slogans and postures while all the time pretending that they remain sane and liberal while they do it.
2. In the chapter on post-modernism I explain how the idea that it was somehow culturally imperialist to criticise reactionary movements and ideas, as long as they aren’t European or American reactionary movements and ideas of course, gained hold. This delusion is everywhere now. It lies behind the extreme form of multi-culturalism we have in this country.
3. And I hope I never understimate it in Part Two, justifiable horror at the disasters of the Bush presidency.
4. The argument Martin Kettle touches on below. Middle class liberals don’t know what to do now and have an uneasy relationship with democracy. This is the hardest point to pin down. But you only have to look at their willingess to use the courts to enforce their will or to restrict freedom of speech to realise that many liberals are falling out of love with the free elections and robust debates that define liberal democracy.

Oh yes, and 5, as the reviewer suggests, fear. When confronted with a psychopathic, one tactic is to blame yourself for his rage in the hope that your admisison of guilt will pacify him.

Incidentally, you can also hear Nick Cohen on Start the Week. Now.

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